Saturday, 15 January 2011

Second Sunday of Epiphany : Names have power


1 Cor. 1:1-9
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John 1:29-42
The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’.
Some of us may remember that phrase from our childhood. It’s the kind of thing that we might have said in the playground to someone being verbally nasty to us. It was meant to be a way to let someone’s taunts just slide off us. Except that the truth that we all really know is that bones can heal and scars can fade, but persistent unkind words may stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Chief amongst the verbal damaging is the names that someone may call us and the reason for that is that names have immense power, and this is something that we seem to have forgotten in our enlightened secular age. Nowadays the names given to children seem to be influenced by whoever is the latest pop star or celebrity. But names have meaning and I think each of us has at least three or four names, and by that I don’t mean our middle names. Let me explain.

Firstly there is the name that we were given by our parents. That’s usually the only one we think of and often it is just used as a label to distinguish who we mean in conversation. But that name has a meaning. Then there is the name that we call ourselves. We may never actually know it, but the name encapsulates how we think of ourselves and is often dictated by the third name we have.

This third name is the one that other people use when they think of us, or talk to us, or about us. It may be a simple nickname, or it may be the way someone uses our name, the tone of their voice; the set of their face. Whatever it is this third name will undoubtably influence the name we have given ourselves.

Then there is the name that God calls us by. This is the most important name because this is our true self. We may not know it ourselves yet, but God does. It’s quite possible that this name is the name our parents gave us. I know of at least one person who has heard the literal voice of God calling them by name and God used their whole name, not the shortened form that other people use, but it was the name he was named with by his parents.

So we all have names, and those names have power because those names have meaning and that meaning and power runs as a common thread through the readings we have today. If we start with the first letter to the Corinthian church the first word in the entire letter is from the sender, Paul, but Paul is not his real name, or at least it is not the name his parents gave him.

We know from the book of Acts, which is incidentally addressed to Theophilus, which means ‘Friend of God’, that St. Paul began life with the name Saul. Saul means, ‘The one who was prayed for, or the one who was sent as a response to prayer’. It has this sense of asking God to send someone and this is the one who was sent in response. But at some point Saul changed his name to Paul by his own choice. Why?

I’m not sure we can ever be certain of this. Paul was the Latin version of the name Saul, and Paul was a Roman citizen, yet he did not need this new name. I have often wondered whether it has something to do with the meaning of the name. Paul means small, or perhaps humble and maybe has the connotations of. ‘...not all that significant.’

And so I have often wondered whether he chose this name as a mark of repentance for his earlier persecution of the church. After what he had done he couldn’t think of himself as someone that had been prayed for, the name Saul, so he went with Paul because perhaps he felt small in his own mind. That name change could have a powerful effect on who he became.

When we look at the Gospel reading we get several new names. John was known by most people as ‘The Baptizer’. He had been given a new name by those who came to him because of what he did, and that name came from people who recognised what he did as having lasting value in their lives. It was a good name to have. Names have power, and people would have been drawn to him by the new name.

But then John himself gives Jesus a new name when he twice refers to him as ‘Lamb of God.’ That nickname he gives Jesus is such a powerful name that two of his own disciples leave his side to follow this new Rabbi. But why? What was so powerful about the nickname, ‘Lamb of God’? I think it’s because it has powerful sacrificial connotations.

The blood of a lamb was used at Passover to remind the Jews of how they were kept safe from the wrath of God when the angel of death went over the Egyptians. But this name is much more powerful because the name is not the Lamb of the People, but the Lamb of God. It’s no wonder that two of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus. Names have power.

And then finally there is Simon. Simon’s name means ‘to hear or to listen’, yet Jesus gives him a new name, Peter, which means rock. Of all the name changes this is perhaps the most significant here because it is the only occasion in these readings where we get the most important name, the name given not by our parents, nor our associates, nor by ourselves. In Simon Peter’s case we discover his true name, given by God - Peter, a rock.

What makes this interesting is that it really does encapsulate his nature. You see Simon means, ‘to listen’, yet one of the clearest things we pick up about Simon was that he was not good at listening. There are so many occasions throughout the New Testament where Simon gets it wrong because he doesn’t listen. He gets berated by Jesus for misunderstanding what kind of Saviour Jesus is to be because he won’t listen when Jesus says he must die for the people.

But as a rock he is someone who will get on and do things. I imagine Peter as someone around whom others will gather because he speaks up. I don’t know that Peter would have seen it in himself, but Jesus, who really knows people, saw it in him and gave him a new name that really encapsulated who he was. And names have power. Armed with his new name, Peter would have known what was expected of him, which is perhaps why he felt pain so acutely when he failed.

So what’s your name? Which of the names that you have is the one that has real power over you? Is it the name that your parents gave you? Or has that just become a label? Is it the name that your beloved calls you? The power of a secret loving name should never be underestimated in how much strength it bestows. Or do you call yourself by a disparaging name that you have allowed to steal from you. Let that old name pass away. Let it no longer have power over you.

You see God has a name for you, and in prayer you should seek out what that name is, because the name God gives you bestows great power on you in terms of who he has created you to be, and what he wants you to do. Names have power. What’s your true, God-given, name?

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